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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Meth 101

Methamphetamine use has taken off in the U.S., but what makes it such a hot commodity?

Shutting Off the Tap

In an effort to put a clamp on meth production, Congress passed the Methamphetamine Control Act in 1996. The law tightened restrictions on the sale of chemicals used in making methamphetamine, particularly pseudoephedrine, the nasal decongestant in Sudafed and other over-the-counter cold medicines. The process of meth cooking turns pseudoephedrine into methamphetamine.

An amendment to the law, passed in 2000, further restricted the amount of pseudoephedrine that consumers are allowed to buy at one time.

States have been busy passing their own laws regulating the sale of pseudoephedrine. In July 2005, state lawmakers in Oregon, where meth treatment admission rates are six times the national average, passed a law requiring a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine. In Oklahoma, another state dealing with widespread meth use, you have to show ID and give your signature to buy products containing pseudoephedrine.

In many other states, pharmacies have voluntarily put pseudoephedrine products behind the counter, and other stores, such as gas stations and convenience stores, have stopped carrying them.

Do these kinds of restrictions help curb meth use? Rawson says that in the short term, they seem to. Choking local production may dry up the market temporarily, but he says, "once the market is there, it will seek out the supply from the larger bulk traffickers."

So-called "super labs" across the border, in Mexico, now supply as much as 65% of America's meth. Another new bill, aimed at Mexico, was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in July 2005. The bill calls for the U.S. to withdraw foreign aid to any country that imports more pseudoephedrine than it needs for manufacturing cold medicine. Reporters at the Oregonian in Portland found that Mexico imports twice the amount it legitimately needs.

People Have No Idea

Rawson says he thinks that above all, Americans need to be educated about the dangers of methamphetamine. Public service campaigns in parts of the country where meth has not yet gained a foothold would be especially helpful, he says. The drug's relative obscurity and lack of information about it is often what gets people in trouble.

"I've tagged along at the back end of this epidemic talking about treatment," Rawson says. "Every place you go you hear people say, 'You know, I just had no idea what I was getting involved in.'"

Siever says he hears the same thing from men who knew nothing about meth before they came to San Francisco. "It's story that gets repeated frequently, no matter how much information we put out there," he says.

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